When GIC announced the "major review" of its investment process that led in 2013 to its adoption of a total portfolio approach, achieving market-topping returns seemed to get at least equal billing with preserving the value of the reserves the government entrusted to the fund.
In an overview of the fiscal year ended March 31, 2013, Group President Lim Siong Guan and Lim Chow Kiat, (then) group CIO, wrote, "GIC seeks to achieve better long-term returns than the reference portfolio through its asset allocation strategies."
An outline of the fund's new approach in that year's annual report reiterated the goal, stating that "within the risk tolerance limits defined by the Reference Portfolio, GIC aims to achieve better long-term returns than can be attained through investing passively i.e. 'beta' returns."
A November 2020 report by Willis Tower Watson PLC's Thinking Ahead Institute, based on a survey of 18 other early total portfolio approach adopters, including GIC, found half of that sample expecting portfolios to yield an investment advantage of 50 basis points or more a year.
"The total portfolio approach is more dynamic (and) as part of its design, rotations in the market cycle can be exploited to add value," noted Marisa Hall, London-based co-head of the Thinking Ahead Institute and an author of the November 2020 report, in an email. A traditional strategic asset allocation approach "is often more anchored, where the risk profile is reflected in a set asset allocation," even if asset class ranges offer some flexibility, she said.
The GIC spokeswoman said in her email that the fund's reference portfolio is not a performance benchmark. While representing the risk the government is prepared for GIC to take in generating good long-term investment returns, that level of risk isn't meant to be held constant through market cycles, she suggested.
"On occasions when GIC is more risk averse than the risk profile of the Reference Portfolio, such as when market exuberance leads to heightened valuations, GIC may lower our risk exposure," the spokeswoman said. "Conversely, GIC may increase our risk exposure when the opportunity arises," she added.
The Thinking Ahead Institute's Ms. Hall demurred on the question of whether such changes in portfolio risk should be seen as market timing. "We would probably class this as somewhere in between strategic and tactical," she said.
Some of the other Asia-Pacific asset owners surveyed by the Thinking Ahead Institute, including Australia's A$194.4 billion ($130.6 billion) Future Fund, Melbourne, and the NZ$58.4 billion ($35 billion) New Zealand Superannuation Fund, Auckland, likewise adjust their risk profiles in response to market conditions.
Both of those funds, launched less than 20 years ago, report outpacing their performance benchmarks since inception, by an annualized 1.47 percentage points for New Zealand Super and 1 percentage point since May 2006 for the Future Fund.